To a Laughing Boy…

20 Aug

This is to a small, laughing boy in a large blue snowsuit.

That was you, when I met you in January 1946. Surprise! You are now sixty years old. I knew your father. He made friends easily and he was funny, caring and a cross between Joel Grey, Bobby Kennedy and Sammy Davis Jr. He had a permanent grin and chattered without letup. You’d have liked him. The day was darker when he left us.

Your dad and I were paratroopers, you know that. We met at Ft. Benning in Georgia. We weren’t buddies in the usual sense, but he knew everyone personally, whether he knew them or not. Your dad wasn’t big and tough but he was wiry and strong and could do magic tricks and acrobatic stunts. When we got overseas we met a few times, shared some laughs and a few beers at the end of work. Your mother wrote to him every day.

Just weeks before we shipped out of San Francisco, he and your mother were married. Since I had camp duty, I couldn’t go to the wedding but I saw the pictures. There was a crowd. Sometime in the next week or so you were conceived.

We were not yet assigned. We were all volunteers who had lived, laughed and trained together but now we were to be scattered to other regiments in the 11th Airborne Division. Good friends were separated; highly skilled teams were broken up and a few stayed together. It was the luck of the draw, names in a hat – and I never saw your dad again.

He went ashore with the spearhead wave at a place called Nasugbu. At first it was easy and then it got mean. A little way inland, the enemy was dug into caves and had to be cleared out the hard way. Your father and two of his friends from parachute school, good friends of mine, too, lost their lives in the first hour or so. I learned about it from your dad’s friends when we met on the road to Manila. He was the kind of man you knew would survive the hardest jobs. I looked forward to seeing him in Manila. We would have some stories to share.

In ’46 you were crawling in the snow, flopping about and laughing. It was in a park in New Jersey. I was visiting a relative after my discharge at Ft. Dix and because the pond in the town parkwas frozen solid, I borrowed some skates. I went ice skating for the first time in years still wearing my army uniform with the Eleventh Airborne Division patch on my shoulder. That was a treasured insignia; we were a proud bunch and we still are. There are a few of us still running around and we get together every year. Your father would have been the cheerleader and story teller.

Your mother, with you in tow, saw the paratrooper patch on my uniform coat and called to me. Her husband was in that division, she told me, and had been killed. Perhaps, she said, I knew him but probably not. Men who did know him had written to her and that was comforting.

When she told me his name I was dumbfounded. Maybe she knew otherwise but I said that I may have but it was a big army. I might have met him but couldn’t be sure. Maybe I had no answer for the one simple question she was sure to ask – why him? What went wrong, who was at fault, why of all those people? I could not tell her that you had to be there to make any sense of it.

Please let me say what I couldn’t say then. Your dad was one unique individual spirit when you saw him up close. From a distance he was merely one of countless dots moving on the landscape. Most of us would stand and some of us would fall. Your dad and his friends fell but were not forgotten. He was loved and had grand plans for his future with you and your mother.

I had no such grand plans, none, in truth. My vague plans became real and your Dad’s did not. There are stories of close shaves, near misses, lucky breaks, minor wounds, dumb luck – a mistake of the moment that preserved a life or cost a life. Through no special grace or skill, I came through only mildly damaged as did most of us.

The objectives and nobler motives of the company, army or squad were not my private affair. I did nothing heroic and didn’t need that far off mountaintop or the river in front of us except as one step closer to finishing what we had to do. My own goals were to carry out my assigned part in the unit to the best of my ability and to survive the conflict, the chance, the folly, the unexpected and the toss of the dice.

When we, as a unit, a number on a strategic map had met our responsibilities, for short periods we became what we were, in fact, ordinary human beings with individual faces and identities who had learned to be deadly and durable. We lived.

Had I or your father failed to do our small part in the whole immense drive, lain back in relative safety, found a way to be elsewhere, to move slowly or not at all, we would have failed in our promise, to our nation, our buddies and ourselves. Mostly, we would have failed you, the future.

We would have been excluded by those who were closest to us. I would have failed the man next to me. Worse, I would have despised myself. There is no deeper hell than that.

The enemy soldier who took your father’s life didn’t know him among the many young men in green who were running toward him, sprinting, taking cover, popping up here and there, firing their rifles and moving forward, at terrifying speed. The odds are that he died, too. That’s how it was. A determined mass of nameless men, advancing against a mass of nameless men determined to stay. We all looked alike to them and they to us. Never was the individual on either side judged worthy or not, chosen to live or not. We seldom saw the other’s eyes and then only briefly. We and they were the enemy; in that we were alike.

Your father probably did not do anything singularly heroic or rash that day. He gave his life. Given a choice, knowing that he had fathered a child, he may have done other things that day. But he had voluntarily joined an elect organization of men who were entrusted to give a greater effort, with greater strength, skill and bravery than others. They would be called on for the dirty work of being first.

His loss as a singular person was not in the grand plan, nor was he a share of the expected price of victory. He wasn’t chosen for sacrifice. There was no list. There was nothing that had his number on it. He was simply in that place at that precise moment doing his best at what he had agreed to do. Hewas one solitary part of a rising up against a despotic rogue empire that had murdered and enslaved millions; whose treachery and mercilessness still mark them over a half century later. Your father was among those who chose to stop them.

When we met the troopers trudging up the hills from the Nasugbu shore, they were already years older, battle smart and terribly tired. That night they rested. As the months wore on, their numbers grew less and they aged more quickly. I don’t know which of them told me about your dad and Sergeant Gunn and Cpl. Butler and the others whom I’d known during our airborne training. But he was crying when he told me, maybe from fatigue. Me, too.

You see, your father was the first man I knew who was killed in combat. He was a fractional, but treasured part of what the battle planners called acceptable losses. On the day he was killed, all who knew him saw reality in a new way and became tougher and more courageous. We became more resolute and more angry. That’s what your father did in the war. I thought you would like to know.

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